The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
Overpriced and Underperforming?
Discussion Board on this DLS topic
by Harold C. Hutchison
April 22, 2005
Which aircraft have turned out to deliver the least in terms of their cost
and performance? This is a tough question, particularly since there are a number
of reasons why aircraft have never really fulfilled their design potential. One
reason is that the plane may have never had to carry out its designed role.
One example of this is the B-36 heavy bomber. This was a large and expensive
bomber – controversial since there had been an effort to cut back on aircraft
carrier production to pay for it. This caused a huge debate and the famous
“Revolt of the Admirals” during which it was labeled a “billion dollar blunder”.
However, things never got to the point where the B-36 would be put to the test
of combat – a fortunate thing, since the B-36 was strictly designed as a nuclear
bomber (to cross the Atlantic to bomb Nazi Germany in case Britain fell under
German control). To a lesser extent, this has been true of every strategic
bomber built and entering service since the Cold War started (the B-52, the
B-1B, and B-2A all fall into this category to one degree or another). The
nuclear bombers have turned into superb conventional assets – all the while
managing to keep the peace in the nuclear balance.
Another reason could
be that the aircraft was oversold to begin with. A classic example of this is
the F-111. The original billing of the F-111 was to be a low-altitude
interdiction aircraft for the Air Force, an interceptor for the Navy, and a
close-air support aircraft for the Marine Corps. In essence, it was a late-1950s
and early-1960s version of the Joint Strike Fighter. The aircraft only really
succeeded in the first role, never got past the prototype stage in the second,
and the third version never got off the drawing board. In essence, one airframe
was being tasked to fulfill three widely disparate roles – roles that needed
three separate aircraft. Ultimately, the Navy pulled out of the F-111 program
and instead built the F-14, which became a superb interceptor and air
superiority plane. The Marines ultimately went for the AV-8B Harrier for
close-air support. The Air Force, however, got a superb tactical bomber once the
F-111’s teething problems had been worked through.
Some aircraft also get
the label, because they are still being proven, or have just entered service.
Several American aircraft fit this category, most notably the V-22, F-22, and to
a lesser extent the F-35. The press has had their field days reporting on
perceived problems with these aircraft, but these are aircraft that have been
going through the same process of working out the glitches that many now-proven
planes like the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 have. The Su-27/Su-30 family of
aircraft also fall into this category. There have been very few combat tests of
the Su-27/Su-30 to date (the only one known of is the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict
These are some planes that DO deserve some criticism.
These are planes that have gone to combat and have proven they can’t hack it (at
least to date). One of these planes is the MiG-29 Fulcrum, which got its first
combat test in Desert Storm – where it was on the wrong end of a 29-0 kill
ratio. As many as four Yugoslavian MiG-29s were downed during the war in Kosovo,
and as many as five were reportedly shot down in conflicts between Ethiopia and
Eritrea. The only kill attributed to the MiG-29 was an unarmed Cessna on a
humanitarian mission shot down by a Cuban MiG-29 over international waters. This
has resulted in the MiG design bureau being eclipsed to a large degree by
Sukhoi, whose Flanker has picked up the bulk of export orders from Russia. It
never hurts to take claims that a system is junk with a few grains of salt. It
sometimes might be the aircraft still has to work out some teething problems or
hasn’t had the chance to prove what it can do.